The Accidental ATC

A former wrestling coach heeds the call to athletic training.

By Kenny Berkowitz

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 13.6, September 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1306/atc.htm

Chris Albright never planned to become an athletic trainer. After graduating from Lock Haven University in 1983, Albright went to nearby Punxsutawney (Pa.) High School as a wrestling coach. But four years later, the school lost its athletic trainer, and Albright found himself with a new assignment.

“I actually got this job by default, simply because I knew how to tape an ankle,” says Albright, ATC, EMT, who recently finished his 20th year at Punxsutawney High School. “I thought you had to have more credentials than that, but at that time in Punxsutawney, you didn’t.

“The athletic director asked if I could tape an ankle, I said yes, and he appointed me athletic trainer,” continues Albright. “Then I started to learn more about the work, got really interested in it, and here I am—the first certified athletic trainer the school has ever had.”

Famous as the home of weather-predicting groundhog Punxsutawney Phil and Groundhog Day, Punxsutawney is a small town in western Pennsylvania, set in the middle of coal mines, rolling hills, and hardwood forests, with a 900-student high school that sends most of its graduates to college. It’s a town where one person can make a difference to the whole community, and Albright, who grew up about an hour away, is happy to raise his two children here, calling it a “small-town USA kind of place where people treat each other well.”

In 16 years working as the school’s athletic trainer, Albright has continually expanded his responsibilities. He now covers home games for 17 different teams at the high school, travels with teams for playoff games, and takes care of athletes from Punxsutawney Area Middle School. He’s created an academic class in sports medicine, which he teaches alongside a full course load in health and physical education, and spends his vacations running a training and conditioning program that’s open to all Punxsy athletes. At the same time, on his own initiative, he recognized the importance of certification, and balanced work, study, and family life to complete his ATC at Clarion University in 2002.

For consistently going beyond his required duties, Albright receives T&C’s Above the Call Award.

“We would be totally lost without him,” says Athletic Director Gary Juart. “He spends countless hours at work. If there’s an event, he’s here, whether it’s after school, at night, or on weekends. And the kids really appreciate all the work he does to keep them healthy.”

“Mr. Albright is one of the most respected teachers in our school,” says senior Justine Juart, an athletic training student aide who works with the volleyball team. “He knows how to be a friend to the kids, and he knows how to be a good authority figure. He’s very understanding and very patient, even though he’s probably the busiest person in the school. He always treats students with respect, and in turn, they treat him with respect, too.”

In conversation, Albright is modest and soft-spoken, giving credit to Punxsy’s coaching staff, his student aides, and his own mentor, Clarion University Athletic Trainer Jim Thornton, ATC, MS, PES. Albright says he has grown quieter and more relaxed since he stopped coaching, and even though he misses that sense of competition, he’s glad he made the switch.

“I wrestled in high school and college, and I always enjoyed coaching it,” says Albright. “I would have been happy to keep doing it, but the school really needed an athletic trainer, so that’s the path I chose to take.

“I felt I could help more people in this position, so I decided to transfer my energies, and the more I studied, the more my priorities changed,” he continues. “If I’d kept on as a wrestling coach, I would have been busy for one season, and that’s it. Instead, I’m working the whole year.”

Albright’s daily schedule during the school year begins at 7 a.m., when he arrives in the training room, and ends as late as 9:30 p.m. if he’s working a home game. His summer schedule, which begins a few weeks after the end of classes, is centered on a free camp that’s open to all Punxsy athletes and runs every weekday morning from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m..

Albright keeps the camp focus on functional strength training and balances work in the weight room with medicine ball drills, agility exercises, and plyometrics. Even though he does the work as a volunteer, having taken over when the previous strength coach retired, Albright sees it as part of his mission: working to prevent injuries.

“In the long run, this camp makes my job easier,” says Albright. “Of all the kids I worked with last summer, I had to treat only three during the school year, and they had minor injuries. So I’ve also started working with kids during the winter, and that’s helped a lot, too.”

Albright also treats students from the middle school down the road—even though that’s not officially a part of his job, either. Staying in regular radio communication with middle school staff, Albright is on call throughout the day, taking charge of athletic emergencies, treating athletes for overuse injuries, and preparing the middle school’s 10 varsity teams for home games. Essentially, he’s treating athletes from all six grades and both schools, and to do that, he’s created a strong core of athletic training student aides from Punxsy High.

“They’re absolutely invaluable to me,” says Albright. “My student trainers are my arms and legs, and there’s no way I could do all this work without them. They’re also my eyes and ears, looking out for potential injuries. They’ll tell me, ‘This player isn’t walking the way he normally walks,’ or they’ll let me know when a player says, ‘I’m not telling Albright I’m hurt, because he’ll make me sit.’ They know the kids better than I do, and that makes them a huge asset to my program.”

“The kids all look up to him and try to be like him,” says senior Becky Morrison, an athletic training student aide who plans to go to college to become an athletic trainer. “He’s really made a difference—not just for me, but for the whole school. It’s funny, because when we have ‘reverse’ days at school, where the kids dress up like teachers, almost all the guys will dress like him.

“When I first moved here, I had a lot of problems getting adjusted to high school, and Mr. Albright was always there to offer support,” continues Morrison. “He supported me when my mother died, and when I was feeling depressed he would call and talk to me every night on the phone. He got the teachers together, and laid out a plan to help me graduate. He’s taught me that no matter how hard life gets, there’s always a way to work things out.”

Since gaining his ATC certification, Albright has worked on a handful of post-surgery rehabs and some sport-specific retraining after ACL injuries and fractures. His greatest emergency occurred when a visiting basketball player went into convulsions on the court after being hit on the head, which required a helicopter flight to the nearest hospital. But for Albright, the hardest part of the job is knowing how to relate to each individual athlete.

“The biggest challenge is in knowing how to motivate your athletes,” says Albright. “Some kids have to be held back to keep them from hurting themselves, and some kids have to be pushed a little to get them moving. It differs with each kid, and you have to figure out exactly what’s going to work for each of them. The hardest are the ones that don’t come to see you until you catch them limping through the hallway. Those are the kids you have to take aside and say, ‘You need to give this a little rest now, or you’re going to have to give this a lot of rest later.’”

After 10 years working as an athletic trainer, Albright decided it was time to get his certification, and he’s glad he did. “Before I went to Clarion for the ATC, I figured I knew a lot about the human body, and that the coursework wouldn’t be too hard,” says Albright. “But there was a lot more to it than I realized, and the classes really opened my eyes.”

The training has given Albright a new appreciation for the profession, and he’s taking seriously his responsibility to spread the word about what the job entails. “Most people still think of the job as a glorified Band-Aid distributor,” says Albright. “So I educate them by talking about what I actually do, and demonstrating what I’m capable of.”

Obtaining the certification has made Albright an even better athletic trainer, adding objective knowledge to his natural ability to work with students. “He does a truly outstanding job,” says Gary Juart. “He’s very knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and conscientious. When our students get hurt, he’s very careful to make sure that they’re fully healed before he’ll let them play again. And that’s made him a great asset for us.”

“I really enjoy working with the kids,” says Albright. “The best part is seeing them get back into the swing of things after you’ve done some work together. When they’re back to 100 percent, they get to feel really good about themselves, and that makes me feel good, too.”